Enough with the PowerBall cheerleading — just report the story

January 13, 2016

I wish journalists would stop being such cheerleaders for Powerball.

I could do without seeing one more journalist buying a ticket and promising to bring one home to the anchors. Just report the story.

This Powerball sucker game fervor is an opportunity to seriously examine how lotteries have or have not lived up to the promises that supporters made when they passed lotto laws.

This week, Maine’s sometimes controversial governor Paul LePage said if the legislature would repeal the state’s lottery, he would sign the bill. That state is taking a serious look at how lottery laws moved so fast toward approval and the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting recently published an internal state review of who buys lotto tickets. Not surprisingly, these findings seem consistent with an older study on the relationship between poverty and lotteries in 39 states.

…estimates benefit recipients statewide spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” on losing tickets in order to take home $22 million in winnings. Since 2010, nearly one of every four people who hit jackpots of least $1,000 in the state lottery was receiving government benefits for the poor, according to DHHS data.

According to the memo, the winners were enrolled in at least one of the state’s three principal public aid programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known commonly as food stamps; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); and MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

One way to look at this story might be to see if your state, which may be promoting lottery income as a way to help schools, has also lowered school spending that it funded through taxes.

The International Business Times reported this week that no matter how much people spend on Powerball tickets, your kids’ schools are still going to be cash-poor because lawmakers in state after state have not used lotto income as “additional” money to help schools, but as a replacement for money it cut or diverted elsewhere.

In some cases, state legislatures have come to rely so heavily on lottery proceeds that they’ve adjusted other spending to avoid paying more toward per-pupil funding.”

“If you spend a dollar on the lottery and lose, don’t assume that dollar goes to education,” said Ross Rubenstein, a public management and policy professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “Don’t expect that if a lot of money is spent on the Powerball this week and next week, that next month a new teacher’s going to show up at your kid’s school.

See if per-pupil spending is up, flat, or down since your lottery began. Be sure to factor in inflation.

You may find real verifiable stories of ways lottery income has been good for states. I suspect they are good for retailers who sell the tickets. States list how much of a lotto ticket sale stays with the retailer, typically a nickel or so for every ticket. Then there are bonuses for big sales and for winning ticket sales.

I also think TV stations should disclose when they make income from carrying lottery results. You are, in effect, promoting a sponsor when you do news stories hyping Powerball mania.

A few other considerations while we await a winner. How much backgrounding would you do on the person who wins? What if the person turned out to have a criminal background? This kind of thing does happen, as we learned in Florida not long ago. Would you include that in your profile of that person even if the person paid for their crimes?

Would you report it if you found that the winner owed back child support, had filed bankruptcy and left a trail of broken creditors? How much privacy does the winner deserve? If the winner asked to be left alone, would you back off? Will you camp out at their house? Show images of their kids?

I hate to sound like such a buzzkiller while so many people have fun with the dream of a big win at the lottery. Cover that, too, if you want. But remember this is a state-run enterprise that deserves your critical examination.

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